NEW ORLEANS – The San Francisco 49ers’ season was on the line with 2:23 left in the NFC Championship Game last week.
The Niners were clinging to a 28-24 lead, and the Atlanta Falcons had first down on San Francisco’s 16-yard line.
That’s when the NFL’s best linebacking corps took over.
Inside linebacker Patrick Willis stuffed a running play for 1 yard, then made a sure tackle on a short pass over the middle. On third and 4, outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks batted away a pass at the line of scrimmage. On fourth down, inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman broke up a pass over the middle for receiver Roddy White.
“We just played tight coverage and rushed four and it worked out,” said Niners defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. “We have great linebackers. There’s no hiding that.”
San Francisco will count on its four linebackers to be big playmakers Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII.
How great are the 49ers linebackers? Brooks made second-team All-Pro this season, and he has the “worst” credentials of the bunch.
Willis, taken one pick before Buffalo took Marshawn Lynch in the first round of the 2007 draft, has made first-team All-Pro in four of his six seasons.
Bowman, drafted in the third round in 2010, has made first-team All-Pro each of the past two seasons.
Outside linebacker Aldon Smith, drafted seventh overall in 2011, already has 33.5 sacks in two NFL seasons and made first-team All-Pro this year. Smith had 14 sacks as a rookie and 19.5 this year, just three shy of the NFL record.
Brooks, a seventh-year veteran originally drafted in the third round by Cincinnati, is an all-around playmaker, excelling in coverage and averaging six sacks a season over the past four years.
“As a group it’s hard to argue against them being the best group in the league,” said former Tampa linebacker Derrick Brooks, a five-time first-team All-Pro. “It reminds you of back in the day in New Orleans in the early '90s when they had Rickey Jackson, Pat Swilling, Sam Mills and Vaughan Johnson.”
“They’re very rarely off their feet, and they’re always making plays,” Derrick Brooks said. “And they’re very unselfish. They don’t care who makes the play, as long as the play is made.”
Most linebacking units have one or two members who often come off the field in passing situations. Not the Niners. All four played at least 93 percent of the snaps this season. Aldon Smith is primarily a rush linebacker who moves to a left defensive end position in passing situations. Ahmad Brooks often rushes off the other edge.
Willis, 6-foot-1 and 242 pounds, is one of the fastest big linebackers to enter the NFL the past decade. He ran a 40-yard dash time of 4.51 seconds coming out of the University of Mississippi. Bowman, 6-foot and 242, has decent speed at 4.70 seconds. He ranked second in the NFL in tackles this year and seventh last year.
When the Niners play man coverage, Willis often takes the tight end and Bowman covers the back out of the backfield. But their roles are interchangeable. Few linebackers can cover tight ends one-on-one as effectively as Willis, which gives Fangio flexibility in his coverages.
“Willis’ ability to cover in space is a rare ability,” Derrick Brooks said. “Thankfully Willis has a defensive coordinator who recognizes it. He and Bowman do a good job of mixing it up, too. With them it’s a guessing game which one is covering and which one is blitzing. And not only do they cover, but they make plays on the ball.”
San Francisco’s defense ranked second in points allowed and third in yards allowed this year. They were fourth against the run and fourth against the pass.
Fangio says the addition of Smith, who had played just two seasons of college football at Missouri, gave the Niners the complete foursome to dominate from a 3-4 alignment.
“I think our inside linebackers can play in a 4-3 just as equally as well,” Fangio said. “It’s the outside linebackers that are hard to find (in the 3-4).”
The linebackers also benefit from a stout front three. Niners’ left defensive end Justin Smith is a four-time Pro Bowler whose physical style ties up blockers and helps Aldon Smith break free to the quarterback.
Baltimore running back Ray Rice, who led the NFL in yards from scrimmage in 2011, knows it’s going to be tough to run the ball well against the Niners’ linebackers.
“I’ll just try to go out there and match up on them on coverage,” Rice said. “That’s where I’ll try to get my advantages because I know, in the run game, they’re very stout. So, I have to try to have a complete game plan and prepare to attack those two linebackers. ... This is one of those games where you just have to keep sawing wood.”
Units of measure
San Francisco’s linebacking unit ranks as the top corps in the NFL, thanks to first-team All-Pros Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith. Along with teammate Ahmad Brooks this is only the second season all four have played together. What are the best linebacking corps in NFL history? Here’s a subjective list:
1. New Orleans. Late 1980s to ’90s. Rickey Jackson, Sam Mills, Pat Swilling and Vaughan Johnson. Played together seven seasons and combined for 20 Pro Bowls over their entire careers. Jackson is a Hall of Famer.
2. Kansas City. Late 1960s to .’70s. Bobby Bell, Willie Lanier, Jim Lynch. Bell and Lanier are Hall-of-Famers. Played together eight seasons and combined for 18 Pro Bowls.
3. New York Giants. 1980s. Lawrence Taylor, Harry Carson, Gary Reasons, Carl Banks. Taylor and Carson are Hall of Famers. They played together five seasons and combined for 20 Pro Bowls.
4. Pittsburgh. 1970s. Jack Ham, Andy Russell, Jack Lambert. Ham and Lambert are Hall of Famers. Played together three years and over their careers combined for 24 Pro Bowls.
5. Chicago. 1980s. Wilber Marshall, Mike Singletary, Otis Wilson. Singletary is in the Hall of Fame. Played together four years and combined for 14 Pro Bowls.